Central America:

Improved Evaluation Efforts Could Enhance Agency Programs to Reduce Unaccompanied Child Migration

GAO-15-707: Published: Jul 29, 2015. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 2015.

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Kimberly Gianopoulos
(202) 512-8612
gianopoulosk@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

U.S. agencies have sought to address causes of unaccompanied alien child (UAC) migration through recent programs, such as information campaigns to deter migration, developed in response to the migration increase and other long-standing efforts. The recent migration increase was likely triggered, according to U.S. officials, by several emergent factors such as the increased presence and sophistication of human smugglers (known as coyotes) and confusion over U.S. immigration policy. Officials also noted that certain persistent conditions such as violence and poverty have worsened in certain countries. In addition to long-standing efforts, such as U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) antipoverty programs, agencies have taken new actions. For example, Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-led investigative units have increasingly sought to disrupt human smuggling operations.

U.S. agencies have located programs based on various factors, including long-term priorities such as targeting high-poverty and -crime areas, but have adjusted to locate more programs in high-migration communities. For example, Department of State (State) officials in Guatemala said they moved programs enhancing police anticrime capabilities into such communities, and USAID officials in El Salvador said they expanded to UAC-migration-affected locations.

Most agencies have developed processes to assess the effectiveness of programs seeking to address UAC migration, but weaknesses exist in these processes for some antismuggling programs. For example, DHS has established performance measures, such as arrests, for units combating UAC smuggling, but has not established numeric or other types of targets for these measures, which would enable DHS to measure the units' progress. In addition, DHS and State have not always evaluated information campaigns intended to combat coyote misinformation. DHS launched its 2013 campaign in April, but launched its 2014 campaign in late June after migration levels peaked. Neither agency evaluated its 2014 campaign. Collecting performance information on media campaigns can have value in informing future campaign efforts to reduce child migration.

Timing of Department of Homeland Security Public Information Campaigns and Monthly Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Alien Children

Timing of Department of Homeland Security Public Information Campaigns and Monthly Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Alien Children

Why GAO Did This Study

According to DHS, the number of UAC apprehended at the U.S.-Mexican border climbed from nearly 28,000 in fiscal year 2012 to more than 73,000 in fiscal year 2014, with nearly three-fourths of those apprehended nationals of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Children from these three countries face a host of challenges, such as extreme violence and persistent poverty. Those who migrate can encounter even more dangers, such as robbery and abuse.

GAO was asked to review issues related to UAC migration. In February 2015, GAO reported on U.S. assistance to Central America addressing the rapid increase in UAC migration. This report reviews (1) U.S. assistance in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras addressing agency-identified causes of UAC migration; (2) how agencies have determined where to locate these assistance efforts; and (3) the extent to which agencies have developed processes to assess the effectiveness of programs seeking to address UAC migration. GAO reviewed agency documents and interviewed officials in Washington, D.C., and in Central America.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DHS and State take steps to integrate evaluations into their planning for, and implementation of, future information campaigns intended to deter migration. GAO also recommends that DHS establish performance targets for its investigative units. DHS concurred with both recommendations, and State concurred with the one recommendation directed to it.

For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202)-512-8612 or gianopoulosk@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its comments on the report in July 2015, the Department of Homeland Security stated that it concurred with this recommendation. In November 2015, DHS completed an evaluation of its Know the Facts information campaign, which was launched in July 2015 to dissuade UAC migration. DHS reported that the most recent campaign, launched by DHS and State in December 2016, did not emphasize as strongly as previous campaigns the dangers of migration such as robbery and violence given previous findings that such dangers are well known. However, DHS reported this campaign emphasized emotional connections of loss, guilt, and regret associated with potentially losing loved ones. In May 2017, DHS conducted a survey to assess the campaign's effectiveness. A report on the survey's findings provided information on the campaign related to audience recall, response, and potential impact on behavior. We believe the evidence provided in the memo demonstrates that State and DHS have worked in cooperation in carrying out the overall effort of conducting public information campaigns intended to dissuade child migration. Moreover, both agencies have taken actions responsive to our recommendation to integrate evaluations into the campaign effort. Some of these actions were conducted by one agency alone. For example, the Embassies (managed by State) contracted for the focus groups studies, while DHS conducted the post-campaign surveys to evaluate effectiveness. But other actions were undertaken by both agencies jointly, such as both using the focus group findings to shape future campaigns, and both launching the December 2016 campaign together. Overall, both agencies were working together toward developing these information campaigns, and in making evaluations and the results of evaluations to shape campaigns an increased part of the campaign effort.

    Recommendation: To strengthen agency performance measurement related to deterring child smuggling, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security should instruct appropriate agency public affairs officers to integrate evaluation into their planning for, and implementation of, future public information campaigns intended to dissuade migration, such as campaigns warning of the dangers of migration, providing facts on U.S. immigration policy, or conveying other messages. This could include ensuring that available migration data, such as DHS's monthly data on UAC apprehensions, is used to inform the timing of these campaigns, and that the results of campaign evaluations are used to inform future campaigns to enhance their effectiveness.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its comments on the report in July 2015, the Department of State stated that it concurred with this recommendation. In October 2015, State told GAO that it has instructed its public affairs officers to integrate evaluations into the planning for and implementation of future State public information campaigns intended to dissuade migration. State noted that these officers use migration apprehension data, among other sources, to inform the timing and substance of their campaigns. Officials reported that the most recent campaign, launched by State and DHS in December 2016, did not emphasize as strongly as previous campaigns the dangers of migration such as robbery and violence given previous findings that such dangers are well known. However, DHS reported this campaign emphasized emotional connections of loss, guilt, and regret associated with potentially losing loved ones. In May 2017, DHS conducted a survey to assess the campaign's effectiveness. A report on the survey's findings provided information on the campaign related to audience recall, response, and potential impact on behavior. We believe the evidence provided in the memo demonstrates that State and DHS have worked in cooperation in carrying out the overall effort of conducting public information campaigns intended to dissuade child migration. Moreover, both agencies have taken actions responsive to our recommendation to integrate evaluations into the campaign effort. Some of these actions were conducted by one agency alone. For example, the Embassies (managed by State) contracted for the focus groups studies, while DHS conducted the post-campaign surveys to evaluate effectiveness. But other actions were undertaken by both agencies jointly, such as both using the focus group findings to shape future campaigns, and both launching the December 2016 campaign together. Overall, both agencies were working together toward developing these information campaigns, and in making evaluations and the results of evaluations to shape campaigns an increased part of the campaign effort.

    Recommendation: To strengthen agency performance measurement related to deterring child smuggling, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security should instruct appropriate agency public affairs officers to integrate evaluation into their planning for, and implementation of, future public information campaigns intended to dissuade migration, such as campaigns warning of the dangers of migration, providing facts on U.S. immigration policy, or conveying other messages. This could include ensuring that available migration data, such as DHS's monthly data on UAC apprehensions, is used to inform the timing of these campaigns, and that the results of campaign evaluations are used to inform future campaigns to enhance their effectiveness.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on the report in July 2015, the Department of Homeland Security stated that it concurred with this recommendation, and that it would work with host nation partners to establish goals to measure these units' investigative activities and capacity development. In September 2015, DHS noted that it planned to use law enforcement data to measure TCIU success rates and inform efforts going forward. GAO has followed up with DHS--most recently in June 2017--on the status of its efforts to establish performance targets, but has not yet received a response.

    Recommendation: To strengthen agency performance measurement related to deterring child smuggling, the Secretary of Homeland Security should instruct DHS's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to establish annual performance targets associated with the performance measures it has established for its Transnational Criminal Investigative Units.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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